Last Updated: 1 hour and 5 minutes ago
• By: Brendan Keefe, firstname.lastname@example.org
FLORENCE, Ky. - This story ends with a grandmother walking into a gas station to buy illegal drugs.
But it begins with her grandson overdosing on a synthetic drug that was legal at the time.
Chris Allen had purchased a tiny silver envelope at a corner store in Florence. It contained a substance known as synthetic marijuana, but the reaction he had was more like an overdose of PCP or LSD.
The 19-year-old spent the next three months in a mental hospital.
"He acted like he was talking to people who weren't there," said James Ruehl, the Independence police officer who responded to Chris's overdose. "You see guys having to be taken to the hospital on the first time use, off of one joint."
Calls to poison control centers about reactions to synthetic marijuana doubled last year to more than 7,000.
Part of the problem for police is that in many cities and states, these potent drugs are still considered legal.
Not only are they powerless to confiscate synthetic drugs from teens and other users, police can't stop stores from selling it openly.
"When it can be bought on any street corner, it makes it difficult," Officer Ruehl said.
The drugs were initially created by scientists in a laboratory for legitimate research, but overseas chemists were able to make copies for recreational use.
Now those synthetic drugs enter the United States as a white powder that is eventually liquefied and sprayed onto a natural herb called demania. Packages sold as incense or bath salts are labeled "not for human consumption," but the products are smoked or inhaled like marijuana.
US Customs finds shipments of synthetic drugs at the DHL facility in Erlanger nearly every night. Officers are intercepting the powder at the rate of half a ton per year at CVG.
"Very potent, very harmful," is the way Customs Officer Geoffrey DeWitt described a kilo of synthetic drugs he bagged into evidence. "And in the wrong hands, it could kill people."
The importation of synthetic drugs was first discovered by a Cincinnati-based U.S. Customs agriculture inspector, Stephen Bishop. No one had seen the material before, and Bishop decided to send it to the Customs lab in Chicago for analysis.
That's when chemists realized overseas labs were poisoning America's children.
The Drug Enforcement Administration took emergency action last year, classifying several synthetic drugs as Schedule I controlled substances. The formulations go by names like JWH-210 and AM-2210.
Ohio followed with its own ban, listing each of the compounds by name, making them illegal in the state. Kentucky had a similar law.
But the foreign chemists simply changed a single molecule in each formula, bypassing all the bans. The flow of drugs -- and the legal sale of them at stores and online -- resumed with little pause.
"We hadn't seen this before," said Dr. William Wagner, a top chemist at the Customs lab in Chicago, as he looked at the latest version of a synthetic drug on his instruments.
Designers had replaced an ordinary carbon molecule in a banned formula with an exotic tetramethylcyclopropane ring.
The change made the drug legal, in part because no one had ever seen it before. But it also made it more dangerous.
"We call them designer drugs," said Dr. Wagner, "because they're designed specifically in the chem lab to skirt the law."
The shiny foil packets have colorful graphics and sell under several brand names like K2, Spice, Mad Hatter, and Dead Man Walking. We found a 3-gram packet selling for $20 under the counter at a Florence gas station.
"These gas stations are making a profit at the cost of our children," said Chris Allen's grandmother, Patricia. "We've got to stop this stuff."
Patricia helped raise her grandson who suffered brain damage after smoking synthetic marijuana, and now she's on a mission to get an "umbrella ban" on all synthetic drugs in Florence and elsewhere.
She has gone door-to-door handing out flyers to warn other parents and grandparents, many of whom had never heard of K2 or Spice.
Then Patricia took her case to directly to the Florence City Council.
"Some of them have the effect of an old drug called LSD," Patricia said as council members and Florence's mayor paid full attention.
The police chief in Florence, Tom Szurlinski, echoed Patricia's concerns, reporting to council, "the minute our legislature would outlaw one of those chemical compounds, some chemist would come in and change one little piece, and that now is not illegal."
Chief Szurlinski then surprised Patricia Allen with the news that Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear had just signed emergency legislation banning all synthetic drugs in the commonwealth, not just a list of specific compounds.
"Any synthetic is now illegal to possess or sell," Chief Szurlinski said. "So I think what the legislature's done is exactly what Mrs. Allen is looking for."
Patricia seemed satisfied, but this grandmother wanted to see for herself.
She thanked the council, then got in her car and drove to a Florence gas station less than a mile and a half from the council chambers.
Patricia described the transaction, "I went in and I said 'do you have any Spice?' and he said 'yeah,' and I said 'you got more than this?' and he said 'sure, I've got a whole counter full.' "
Patricia called the police, and officers informed her she could be arrested for possession under the new law. She returned the vial and asked for her money back, but not before showing the clerk a copy of the actual Kentucky House bill -- now law -- banning the sale of synthetic marijuana.
"It's against the law to sell the product that you just sold me," Patricia told the clerk. He replied, "it's against the law?"
Florence police couldn't arrest the clerk if they wanted to -- not just because they weren't there to witness the sale -- but because the new law does not apply to store employees who are unaware the products they're selling are banned.
Chief Szurlinski's officers are now going store to store to let clerks know about the new ban, and the chief promises swift enforcement in the coming weeks.
Part of the problem is the labels don't say what's inside, so it's possible even this latest ban in Kentucky may be unenforceable at times. Right now there are evidence samples on the shelf of the Kentucky Crime Lab still waiting to be tested after several months. Meanwhile, the chemists have already moved on to new formulas.
Patricia said that's the real problem.
"One of the things that makes them so dangerous is that we don't know what's in them," she concluded.
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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